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Grade Two, and finally, the end to bullying

When I first started posting about my ASD child, it was indirectly in response to discussions on the internet about bullying in its many forms. I had intended to speak about how one Principal at our school had landed firmly in its midst to put a stop to bullying and its culture.

Of course, in order to do that, I had to talk about the school, and I wrote about my son because in some ways, he would have been an ideal victim. He wasn’t. He wasn’t in part because of the teachers and their certain faith in a Principal who backed them up.

I’ve spoken about my son’s grade two educational aide.

What I haven’t mentioned in any detail is that my son was not the only child with whom Mr. Virk worked. The other boy was not ASD. He was in no conceivable way -- except for age and gender -- like my son. If my son did not pick up social cues, and, until the middle of the year, had not developed the theory of mind that neurotypical children develop by age three, he was nonetheless a reasonable child if you understand his particular quirks.

The other child who also shared Mr. Virk’s time was not.

I had seen this child in the schoolyard since my son first entered school in junior kindergarten, and I admit that I detested him. He was more than unkind; he once tried to push my son off the height of the kindergarten climbing gym -- and it was not a small drop. He could lie so convincingly that I would have believed him had I not seen the action that provoked the lie with my own eyes.

He was a child who understood that in any group, there must always be a victim - and he did his best to make sure that victim was never him. Often, he tried to make certain it was my son. This did not, as you might well imagine, endear him to me in any way. The fact that he was four ceased to matter. I do not think I have felt such visceral dislike for another person since my teenage years.

Was this reasonable? No. But there’s something enraging about anyone who tries to deliberately harm one’s children on so many occasions. I pretty much hovered over my son when I was in the school yard and this other child was also present.

I can give you the parts of his background I know: he was the middle child, one of three boys; his parents had divorced, and the divorce was not pleasant (the father had asked a neighbor of mine who knew them both to come to the hearing to testify that his wife was a crack addict, because he did not want the wife to have the children. The wife was not, of course, a crack addict). I have already mentioned what he was like in the school yard.

I was present when, at the age of six, he told one of the other mothers to f*ck off. She demanded that he apologize, and he said, “Or what? I’ll get sent to the office?” with a broad smirk. She said, “No. I will phone your mother right now.” He paled and apologized immediately. He was not afraid of going to the office or dealing with the principal. His mother was not always light on the corporal punishment, as I saw when she picked him up early one afternoon (he had been sent home). She was not out of the school before she hit him, while dragging him by the arm.

Did I feel sorry for him? Yes.

Did that change the way I felt about him? I would like to say that it did. But he was always unkind to my son whenever he thought he could get away with it, so I was torn between these two things. A better person than I am would have been able to reach out; I was afraid the reach would end with his throat.

This boy was the other child who was given into the care of Mr. Virk. He was therefore seated next to my son for the entire class. I was…anxious.

A long while back, I started these posts to talk about the way the bullying problems were resolved in the elementary school my sons attended. Some of the problems were resolved in this way: by adult mediation and interaction. The child had grown accustomed over the stretch of almost four years to life in the office; he had grown accustomed to being thought of as the bully whose temper was so malicious. He was not going to just disappear - it was public school. There was no exit. The other children were going to deal with him for the rest of their school life.

Corporal punishment is, of course, forbidden. The ‘send to office’ punishments clearly held no terror for the child. People who advise more draconian punishment might feel justified - but the tools for punishment had not worked at all.

And to end bullying in the school required a different kind of intervention. This child felt - subjectively - that the world was not fair. There was no justice. It was a jungle. He understood the rules of the jungle.

What he had to be made to understand was the fact that he was not living in a jungle.

I often walked my son to his classroom if I wanted to have a word with Mr. Virk, or if Mr. Virk wanted to have a word with me. My son settled easily; the other child appeared to be sullen, but not entirely uncooperative. Since the other child wasn’t mine, I couldn’t really discuss him with the aide. I was therefore left to observe.

One of the phrases that Mr. Virk used almost constantly when talking to this other child was “Clean anger. Everyone gets angry. It’s normal. But it’s important to express anger cleanly.”

I had seen this boy on the playground for years, and I had never seen him angry. Sullen, malicious, defiant, yes - but not angry. I was curious, because of this, but it was clear that Mr. Virk felt the source of most of the trouble he caused was his anger.

Half-way through the school year, I walked into the classroom and this boy I had seen lie, swear at parents, and try to injure my son, was shaking with rage. He lifted a chair, he dropped it; his hands were fists. And Mr. Virk was watching. He was seated, he was alert, but he was just watching. He said, “yes. This is good. Clean anger.” He accepted the presentation of the anger as it was because the child had not, in fact, attempted to hit anyone else with the chair; he had not turned to vent his rage on any other child in the class. He was shaking with anger - but the only thing he did was pick the chair up and slam it down a few times while shaking.

I understood, watching him in some surprise, that this was a huge step for him. He was owning his anger, rather than sliding it sideways into destruction in his resentment for people who had so much more than he did. At seven.

I firmly believe he could do this because he trusted Mr. Virk, and unlike my son, this boy did not trust easily. Would that have been enough to turn him around?

I don’t believe so.

What Mr. Virk’s work required was the support system of a school that was dedicated to creating a safe space for all of its students. My son had never been known as a bully. He was odd and quirky, but he was not unkind, and he was known, by this time, for his honesty. He was taken at his word.

This boy was known for his lies, and his sneakiness; for his unexpected violence (see: pushing small son off the top of the climbing gym above). It was hard for him to untangle the defensive and protective responses he’d built. It was work.

And in an environment where children are pigeon-holed and kept in boxes that delineate their ‘role’ or ‘place’, he might have retreated into them again. But…his work, his effort, was acknowledged. It was encouraged. And when he left himself open to what he feared - victimization and marginalization - it was a test of what he’d been told by the adults he had grown, so hesitantly, to trust.

They had to be there for him. They had to see him. They had to believe him when he was telling the truth. If he was picked on by other kids, they had to be there for him in the same way they were there for my son and for other children who had not built his reputation in the school.

He really did not expect it. I think, at seven, he hoped - but he expected nothing. He was ready to retreat into his ‘unclean’ anger.

But it didn’t happen. The Principal had the same rules and expectations for every child in her school. She was in the playground every day, before school, after lunch, during recesses. She watched the kids. She knew them. She had to, if she was to provide the impartial judgement by which the school needed to run if it was to uproot and eradicate bullying.

She knew she was not going to get this knowledge by sitting behind a desk all day. Rain, snow or heat - if the kids were expected to go outside, she went, too.

She had to address the bullies, not as dangers to the other kids, but as the children they were. And between the two - the educational aide and the Principal, they did. When something upset this boy, she listened. She evaluated it. She acted. She acted in the same way she would have acted for the school’s best students. And he learned to trust that, and to let go of unclean anger.

My son, who was justifiably not fond of this boy, watched him change. And he believed that he had changed.

When my son graduated in grade six, Sara was the valedictorian for her grade. She was a girl who read a ferocious amount, and she participated in everything. She was open, young in the best way, excited about learning and discovery. She was popular because of these characteristics. Where she lead, it was fun to follow. My son liked her; she talked to him about the books she was reading. And about some of their class projects. She talked to everyone.

She gave a lovely speech, but it was striking for me because the one thing she did was she thanked Jane Fletcher. Jane, she said, have given them all a safe space in which they could learn without fear. The school itself. It’s not generally the type of thing one hears from a grade six student - but she understood, as my son did, the meaning of safe space.

And the principal understood that that space had to be safe for everyone in it, to the best of her abilities. Not just my ASD son - although she was so incredibly important in the tone she set for his elementary school life - but all of the children. Even the very, very difficult ones. She had no favorites that the students were aware of. My son was absolutely certain that the best students - and the worst ones - would suffer the same fate for the same crime.

All of the children did; it was essential to make the environment work. She was utterly consistent, and they knew she would be. They trusted that.


( 15 comments — Leave a comment )
(Deleted comment)
May. 29th, 2012 10:40 pm (UTC)
Thank you for reading :)
May. 29th, 2012 05:43 am (UTC)
God. I hope the other little boy has grown up okay. Poor kid.
May. 29th, 2012 10:40 pm (UTC)
He and my son ran across each other often, but only a handful of times after the kids dispersed to their various junior highs. But...he was always pleasant, and he seemed a lot happier than he had in his first few years of school.
May. 30th, 2012 05:07 am (UTC)
Aye, that's good. The power of early intervention.
May. 29th, 2012 07:20 am (UTC)
What a remarkable person and administrator. Bless her.
May. 29th, 2012 08:22 am (UTC)
Mr Virk sounds like a fine man, as does the head-teacher. I'm so glad they were there for your son and for this other child.
May. 29th, 2012 08:41 am (UTC)
This story makes me jealous, I'll just go and admit it. I know first hand what happens when school is not made safe by the principal, what these impossible to punish children become when left unchecked, and how this affects an asd person like your son. The kinder part of me is happy that your son, or any kid in that school, never had to go through what I went through. But most of me is jealous.
May. 29th, 2012 09:02 am (UTC)
Part of the reason - a while ago - I started writing these posts is because I wanted to state clearly why I thought bullying was eradicated in my son’s school. The principal had been brought in because the bullying at the school had reached an intolerable point.

I saw a lot of posts about bullying, about bullying in the school, etc., and many people have assumed that harsher penalties or discipline would cause the bullies to go away, somehow. I probably believed it myself - until I saw the way in which the school reached out and tried to bring all of the kids into a consistent space. It’s easy to label difficult children, and they will own that label if it’s not rewritten in some meaningful way. I don’t think stricter punishment would have changed his behaviour at all - but a different education approach did. He became happier, and his need to lash out slowly vanished.

A principal is basically a hostility sink, if they’re good. They run interference. They deal with enraged parents, and with the people those enraged parents call when they’re trying to get the principal to back down. It is not easy - and I would go so far as to say that very, very few people could handle the stress of the job without blinking - because very few adults I know can deal with that kind of constant crisis and criticism.

I’ve seen principals who are basically friendly and cheerful to parents, and never, ever get in their way. But that’s not always the best thing for the school as a whole - it is frequently very bad. If the teachers require back-up and the principal is basically covering his backside, it’s a recipe for disaster.

No parent truly believes their child is horrible. No parent wants to believe that their child is misbehaving in a “send him home for the afternoon” kind of way.

But I think the reason the bullying stopped was that the difficult child grew to feel that the school could also be a safe place for him. I think the “there is always a victim, and I must make sure it’s not me” reflex is a survival reflex; if you’re in an emotional war-zone, you pick it up because you want to survive. Children who are raised in a fairly consistent environment don’t generally develop this reflex - it’s a reflex that implies he doesn’t believe in safety - at all.

I think the principal understood that the bullies could not be left behind, either; that integrating them required an act of tentative faith on their part. They were taking a risk because they didn’t quite believe that they could be treated fairly, here. That they could be heard.

So I think a huge part of it was how she reached out to children like this one. When they also felt safe, they stopped being so destructive.

I do not think I could have done it, given his early interactions with my son - but I would like, one day, to be the type of person who could, if that makes sense.

Edited at 2012-05-29 09:07 am (UTC)
May. 29th, 2012 09:42 am (UTC)
I am always suspicious if a school says they have no bullying in their school. Our new headteacher says there is no bullying in his school. The previous headteacher said that they were trying to eradicate bullying and had put measures in place to do so. I know which one I believe. Sadly it is human nature to bully someone weaker and different to ourselves. What makes the difference is knowing that it is wrong and not doing it.
May. 29th, 2012 10:52 pm (UTC)
I have to say this:

My son differentiated between bullying and bad behaviour. A bully was someone who enjoyed making people suffer. It didn’t matter who.

On the other hand, he realized that people could hate each other’s guts out, and therefore want the person they hated to suffer - but he considered that an entirely different thing from bullying, if that makes sense?

He considers it highly unlikely that any environment will exist in which people do not love - and hate - each other. So...if people were mean to people they hated, that made a kind of social sense to him: you hate someone, you don’t want them to be happy. So, it’s human nature to dislike people. It’s human nature to like them. It’s frequently nature you will see combined in anyone. There were people who hated my son, and people whom my son hated (although in general this was later, not in elementary school), but he didn’t consider either side of that equation to be bullying.

It’s not that there were never any problems at the school, and it’s never going to be that; where there are people there will be problems. Even when you only have siblings under your care, they require supervision, because they do have tempers, they can get carried away.

There’s an active awareness that’s required, and one can’t “set up safeguards” and then somehow expect the safeguards to function in the stead of people who care and who watch.

What makes the difference is knowing that it is wrong and not doing it.

Yes - but in the case of the problem child, how is he to know what is wrong? It seems clear to me in hindsight that the reason he knew there always had to be a victim was because he felt he was one. For whatever reason, his perception was that the world was not fair and that if he did not do everything in his power to make sure someone else suffered, it would be him, again.

You don’t get reflexes like that unless you absolutely cannot believe in justice or fairness. You develop them when you see the world as, well, a jungle.

What helped that child was the fact that there were people who could point out that this was not the case -- at school. That at school he could take the risk of believing that there would be no victims, that things could be fair, that he could be heard and maybe, must maybe someone would come to his rescue. Someone would defend him. That he wouldn’t be the one who was humiliated and hurt - because there didn’t have to be humiliation and hurt.

It’s not the punishment - which never worked. He expected that. He expected to be the butt end of the universal justice system - and if it was going to happen anyway, he was going to make sure he earned it.

Edited at 2012-05-29 10:54 pm (UTC)
May. 29th, 2012 05:38 pm (UTC)
I think from my own experiences with my boys' school now that what the principal and Mr.Virk accomplished was really quite extraordinary and very difficult. Pulling all of the elements into place to make it possible in the first place are hard, and the strength and perseverance to keep trying, especially, would be heroic.

And I wish it could happen at my guys' school. I believe they are trying, but certain key elements are missing, like having a strong principal who engenders trust and respect and who is impartial. That is a rare person under any circumstances, but would be so crucial to this process.
May. 29th, 2012 10:58 pm (UTC)
And I wish it could happen at my guys' school. I believe they are trying, but certain key elements are missing, like having a strong principal who engenders trust and respect and who is impartial. That is a rare person under any circumstances, but would be so crucial to this process.

Yes. This. It’s exceedingly rare. How many of us have encounters which leave us thinking - for weeks - about what we should have said, but didn’t at the time?

This was a woman who said what had to be said - at the time - and often to very angry people. It’s really, in my opinion, a hard job. It’s not, at heart, about administration, although many people think of it that way.

Teachers did want to come to the school; they wanted to work with her. So, in that, there was some leeway in her choices. But - she had to be that person. I will be eternally grateful that my son’s school life coincided with her tenure at the school.
May. 30th, 2012 01:35 am (UTC)
I recall a study somebody did in rhesus macaques and how individuals in a troop treated each other. Researchers noted that when one primate abused a lower ranking primate, the lower ranked animal would then go and abuse the one even lower in rank. The lowest ranking animal in the troop was almost always the most miserable fellow.

That is what your story reminded me of, what with human children basically following the behavior of another primate species.
May. 30th, 2012 07:54 am (UTC)
'He considers it highly unlikely that any environment will exist in which people do not love - and hate - each other.'
Son and Heir No. 1 sees everything in black and white and I think this is very common in people with Aspbergers. There are no shades of grey. My son had problems with one particular boy - the boy found out that my son does not like having his head touched so went on to do it at every opportunity! After being in conversation with the headteacher and my sons specialist and recommending strategies to my son, I noticed that he had stopped talking about it. I finally asked had the strategies worked. To be told no, but his solution had. He broke the boy's nose. Blood everywhere I gather. I was horrified, but for my son it worked. In my sons mind this was the only way to deal with it. It certainly gave him some kudos amongst his peers. I just avoid the boys mother. The high school is very small and you do tend to know everyone!
Jun. 3rd, 2012 07:37 am (UTC)
Sounds like an excellent school. I wish there was much less pigeon holing. No two students learn the same or react to discipline in the same way.

And by the way; Jane Fletcher? As in the author? Or is the name just a coincidence? :)
( 15 comments — Leave a comment )